Are Seasoned CMOs Handling the Heat?

By Lisa Nirell | 7.11.18

I recently met with a client who needed advice on her next career move. It became painfully obvious that her old job search strategies wouldn’t be enough to make her stand out from younger, nimble, digitally-savvy marketing executives.


She’s the CMO of a multibillion-dollar industry giant who paid her dues over the course of 22 years in marketing for several big brands. She has led teams across multiple continents. She has, by all accounts, lived the marketing dream.


Yet, in private, she expressed her struggle with her own identity and brand. She’s still trying to navigate the new world of modern marketing. Her LinkedIn profile is stale and reads like a resume. She rarely attends conferences where luminaries in her industry gather, let alone attend events with other CMOs. She knows little about mobile strategies and spends minimal time with young professionals. The only people who benefit from her wisdom and gravitas are her direct reports.


Does that sound a little too close to home?


Too many seasoned marketing leaders keep doing what they’ve been doing because people recognize them for their industry prowess. The problem is that they’ve become stale and digital natives are running circles around them.


It is possible to overcome these skill deficiencies and branding hurdles — if you are willing to rewrite your career success recipe. Here are six strategies:

1. Adopt an abundance mindset. In the United States, we’re celebrating eight straight years of monthly job gains. In June we welcomed 213,000 new jobs into the economy. Opportunity is everywhere. You’ll find more job openings than unemployed people. Some businesses will even expand hiring to previously overlooked or disadvantaged audiences. On your toughest days, remember that. It will help you stay curious and positive.

2. Define what you want. That may sound counterintuitive. In Western culture, it is. We want to jump to the “how” and skip the “what.” Instead, pause to find your “what.” Block time on your calendar. Find a pad and pen. Turn off your phone and email alerts. Then answer these career-design questions without any distractions. I guarantee they will help you uncover common themes and roles.

  • If you were to design your perfect day, how would it look?

  • With whom would you spend the day?

  • What urgent business or cultural problems do you love to solve?

  • How did your insights and skills improve your profession?

  • How would you design your work space and location?

  • If someone searched for your online profile(s), what keywords
    would best describe your future “successful self?”

  • Describe the specific cultural norms and values that would
    guide your actions.


3. Fill your skills gaps. Once you know what you really want, honestly assess where your skills are falling short. Technology offers many opportunities for us to inexpensively learn new skills.  Some of my favorite platforms include LinkedIn Learning (formerly, Udemy, and Coursera.

(Full disclosure: I’m a LinkedIn Learning expert).

4. Broaden your network. Consider working at least part time from a coworking space to meet new professionals, especially digital natives. Make time not only to attend industry and marketing conferences, but also to network with people in the types of industries and roles that interest you for your future self.

5. Raise your emotional agility. It’s true that artificial intelligence is dramatically changing our lives. Herein lies the paradox: AI will also push us to focus on inherently human activities that cannot be automated. Peer support, human contact (even hugs), and eye contact never go out of style. Besides, you’ll need to test your new personal brand and messaging with others. Get busy and schedule face-to-face coffee dates.

Here are three skills that build emotional agility:

  • Judgement: applying your understanding of organizational culture and constraints to make ethical business decisions

  • Creativity: bringing together diverse ideas to create pragmatic solutions

  • Empathy: being compassionate when you’re networking, coaching, and collaborating


6. Offer mentoring through a reputable association or marketing group. Imagine sharing your wisdom with younger professionals in your region — or via videoconference to a broader audience. Take that a step further and ask, “What can I learn from a younger person?” A co-mentor relationship will flourish when it’s reciprocal, and you remain infinitely curious.

According to Chip Conley, author of the forthcoming Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, a lack of mutual respect and intergenerational teamwork has grave consequences:

“As the role of…conductor is increasingly falling to younger leaders,
a lack of formal leadership training is becoming a massive organizational liability…. As reported in the Financial Times and Fast Company magazine, Uber’s 3,000 managers were ‘promoted extremely quickly and often without instruction.’ —  63% Of Uber’s managers had never led people before…. As stated by a senior Uber leader, ‘a lack of skilled management and teamwork were the main problems in a company plagued by scandal after scandal.”

It’s incumbent upon us to model critical thinking and common sense for our younger digital peers. Common sense is not always that common.


As modern marketing elders, we have a golden opportunity to invent our future. Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, the former head of the Sufi Order in the West, reminds us of the importance of creating new identity as we age: “If you don’t know that you can be a new person, you will continue dragging your old self-image into the brave the world. You will be outrun and pronounced redundant, unable to make a contribution to the inexorable advance of evolution on our planet.” Stagnation and complacency are clearly a recipe for regret.

About the Author

Lisa Nirell, founder of EnergizeGrowth® LLC, helps CMOs and CEOs from companies such as Adobe, Google, Hilton, and LinkedIn accelerate marketing innovation and growth, formulate new strategies, and launch breakthrough marketing ideas. 

Lisa leads several private CMO peer communities, including Marketing Leaders of DC™  and  Marketing Leaders of Atlanta™. A frequent keynote speaker, Lisa is the award-winning author of The Mindful Marketer: How to Stay Present and Profitable in a

Data-Driven World, and EnergizeGrowth NOW: The Marketing Guide to a Wealthy Company